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De Brún urges funding for "early years learning"

19 November, 2004


Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún has today said that "Educational disadvantage starts at an early age. Poverty, inequality, impact of conflict all have a significant impact on our young people and the opportunities which they can avail of in later life".

Ms de Brún was jointly opening today‚s session of a conference organised by NIPPA - The Early Years Organisation and the World Forum Foundation at the Europa Hotel, Belfast. The conference runs from the 17th - 20th November.

Addressing the opening session, Ms de Brún said:

"Today's conference brings into sharp focus the importance of early years childhood programmes. It also reinforces the role of the EU and the need for EU funding in supporting early years projects, and the relationship between early years learning and the broader process of conflict resolution and peace building across Ireland. There is also a need for mainstreaming of both capital and revenue funds for existing projects and those which are needed but have yet to be established.

"The broader issue of how we spend such resources is also of vital importance. There is a need for government, politicians and the EU to listen carefully to what you as early childhood professionals, as well as children and parents have to say about how our early childhood programmes are delivered. Those people at the coalface of delivery need to be at the centre of the design and development of any programmes." ENDS

Full text of speech

Many thanks for the invitation to come and speak at the opening session of this very important conference today.

It is all the more important because you have invited all three of the north‚s MEPs today to discuss not only the importance of early years childhood programmes, but importantly the role of the EU and EU funding in supporting early years projects, and the relationship between early years learning and the broader process of conflict resolution and peace building across Ireland.

I know that some of you will have had the opportunity during your stay to visit local communities and see some of these childhood programmes in practice. I am sure that like me you will have been impressed by the valuable work carried on in these communities often in very difficult circumstances. Looking at the participants list, I know this experience will not be new to you.

Speaking personally, I have worked during the course of the last 20 years in all aspects of my professional life at the intersection of education provision for young people, combating social exclusion and poverty, addressing issues of conflict and the European and international dimension of these issues.

During my time as a schoolteacher in the Irish language medium sector in west Belfast I dealt first hand with the impact of conflict, poverty, discrimination and social exclusion on our young people.

As former Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, I experienced the same issues from a very different but equally challenging position, and was acutely aware of the difficulties posed by the fact that responsibility for early childhood services is spread over a number of Departments and Ministers.

And now, as an MEP, I have the opportunity not only to see how these issues are dealt with across the 25 EU member states, but also to argue for and hopefully secure funding, whether through PEACE measures, support for IFI or other measures, to assist the process of peace building.

Earlier this year my party launched a document on the future of peace funding from the European Union. At that time we argued and lobbied very strongly for the need for continued support for peace building, reconciliation and conflict resolution across Ireland.

Our document highlighted the need to tackle issues of social and economic exclusion as part of the broader process of reconciliation. We need to reduce inequality and redistribute power to create a level playing field. We must strengthen pathways to reconciliation through social inclusion and develop ways to strengthen citizen participation and respect for human rights.

Those sections of our community who disproportionately have been affected by the conflict need specific attention and there is no question but that children and young people should be considered in this way.

EU support for early childhood programmes have given support to peace building through the practical work with children and families, but also by helping to break down rural isolation and by allow for greater participation of women in education, work and community activities, thus ensuring a more balanced representation in these spheres.

In our discussion document on future funding we have also stressed the need for transparency and accountability in the administration of any peace funds, and crucially, for the meaningful involvement of local communities in the design and implementation of future programmes.

Since that date the European Union has signalled an intention to extend the Peace II programme for an additional two years, albeit at a lower level of funding, with allocation extended to 2006 and spend to 2008. This is being debated at present in the European Parliament.

The debate about a future Peace III programme is also a live issue, and all Irish MEPs need to put party differences aside and lobby hard for this end.

Despite some of the difficulties we are all aware of from Peace I and Peace II, a huge amount of important work has been done. This work needs to receive continued support both from the EU and crucially from government at home. Sinn Féin as a party, and Mary Lou McDonald MEP and myself are committed to doing all in our power to secure this end. We also want to work with all other MEPs from across the island in a coordinated and effective way.

It is important to remind ourselves what this means. I am aware for example that from 1996-2000, £32 million of European Peace I monies was invested through NIPPA and the Childhood Fund into early years learning here and that an additional £9 million is similarly administered under Peace II.

These are important contributions to peace building and reconciliation, to tackling social exclusion and to ensuring that our young people have a better future.

However this is only a fraction of the money that is required for the whole panoply of services which our communities require to ensure our young people have the right kind of start in life, particularly in disadvantaged communities that have suffered most sharply from the conflict.

While securing funds is a central part of all our work, it is not the only or most important issue. The broader issue of how we spend such resources is of vital importance. There is a need for government and politicians and the EU to listen carefully to what you as early childhood professionals, as well as children and parents have to say about how our early childhood programmes are delivered. Those people at the coalface of delivery need to be at the centre of the design and development of any programmes.

Before I conclude I want to make a few remarks about the specific issue of early learning provision.

There is clearly a great deal of concern about the fragmentation of funding sources for most aspects of youth provision and particularly early years. This situation is untenable and actively undermines the ability of good organisations to focus on what they do best. I agree wholeheartedly with NIPPA when they call for a lead Department with the responsibility for all early childhood care, education, sure start and child care policies.

I also firmly believe that there needs to be common standards between voluntary, community, statutory and independent sectors.

There is also clearly a need for mainstreaming of both capital and revenue funds for existing projects and those which are needed but have yet to be established.

The ongoing process of securing funding on short term cycles, from PEACE or short-term government programmes needs to end. There is a need for long term funding to allow for strategic planning.

We have also seen elsewhere in Europe dedicated venues for children and young people at community level. We need to learn from this and understand the beneficial effect this could have particularly in communities that suffer high levels of discrimination, disadvantage and poverty.

And no one doubts that central government funding across the island for children‚s services need to be increased as a matter of urgency.

Educational disadvantage starts at an early age. Poverty, inequality, impact of conflict all have a significant impact on our young people and the opportunities, which they can avail of in later life.

NIPPA are right when they say that the existing level of funding for these services is welcome, but not adequate to meet the most basic needs of our children.

I and my colleagues in Sinn Féin are committed to arguing and lobbying for extra resources from government and from within the EU. These services are required as a matter of right. And in the context of the ongoing work of conflict resolution and peace building they take on a new and even greater significance.

I wish you well in your deliberations today and look forward to hearing these important discussions today around early childhood programmes in response to conflict.

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